OMAHA, Neb. When Tim Corbin took over theVanderbilt baseball program in 2003, the Commodores celebrated making the SEC tournament for the first time in seven years.
Eleven seasons later, Corbin has the Commodores one win from competing for the first men’s national championship in more than 120 years of Vanderbilt athletic competition.
The 2003 men’s tennis team lost in the NCAA championship, and the 2007 women’s bowling team remains the school’s only national champion.
Corbin, ever the superstitious coach, doesn’t want to talk about how close he is to making history at the College World Series.
His focus is solely on winning Friday against Texas, not because of the historical significance, but because it’s the next thing on his to-do list and the only variable he can control.
Coaches who have won national championships at Tennessee schools said Corbin should enjoy the moment, make sure his players relax and be prepared for something unexpected.
Corbin seems to be doing that. While he declined to be interviewed for this story he put this on his Twitter account — @TimCorbin — on Wednesday:
“Just wanted to send a note of continual thanks for those who have followed us to Omaha as well as the people who watch is back home in Nashville. We will continue to celebrate these moments daily and be appreciative of them. Thanks for supporting these kids.”
This is not the first national-championship-caliber baseball team to take the field for Corbin. With major league stars such as David Price, Pedro Alvarez and Sonny Grayalong with 70 other professional players who have come through the program over the past decade, the opportunity has been there for a special season.
In 2011, Vanderbilt’s only other College World Series team made the national semifinals before losing to Florida. It might have been more talented than the group currently in Omaha.
And the 2007 team, which earned the No. 1 national seed, was eliminated before it could get out of the Nashville Regional.
This team was not expected to get to Omaha, but the Commodores are here.
“We started out with the mission to not necessarily get to this point, but to become a family, and at this point now we’re as close as we’ve ever been,” Vanderbilt second baseman and leadoff hitter Dansby Swanson said. “We went through some struggle, but we’ve stood our ground and stayed side by side. We’re all best friends and we’re all brothers, and I couldn’t be more proud of how we’ve battled and gone about our business.”
Sometimes it takes more than just having the most talented team to bring home the trophy.
“It takes a lot of skill and a good amount of good fortune,” said former Tennessee football coach Philip Fulmer, who won a national championship for the Vols in 1998. “You make your own good fortune. I really want to stress that. But you do have to have something bounce your way. We probably had four teams — ’95, ’97, ’99 and ’01 — that were all as talented as the ’98 team, but something along the way kept us from getting there.”
After winning their first two games on Saturday and Monday, the Commodores are in the midst of a three-day break until they play in the winners bracket finals.
“Vanderbilt has to wait three days to play, and I think that’s a big issue out there,” said Cumberland baseball coach Woody Hunt, who won his third NAIA national championship last month. “You have a lot of downtime and you’re waiting all day. The anticipation of playing can absolutely kill you if you don’t handle it the right way. You have time to go through every scenario in your head, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.”
Biding their time and handling all the distractions that the national coverage presents will be important to maintaining the level of success the Commodores enjoyed early in the tournament.
“You cannot get caught up in how great everybody is saying you are,” said Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick, who won eight national championships as an assistant on Pat Summitt’s staff.
“You’ve just got to stay focused. And in the down periods they can’t sit around and think about it all of the time. That’s not what college kids do. The coaches can, but the kids need to have a little bit of fun and relaxation thrown in along the way as well.”
Relieving the pressure
As the Commodores creep closer to a national championship, the pressure on the players will reach an all-time high.
“They want to win badly,” Hunt said. “The desire to win is there. I promise you Vanderbilt wants to win badly, so you can’t do anything else to create more desire.”
Greg Reynolds, father of Vanderbilt freshman left fielder Bryan Reynolds, said the Commodores have something else going for them.
“The thing that really jumps out at me, as a parent, about the team is that it’s all been about the team,” he said. “And as parents, we have been welcomed as part of the family from day one. It’s something really special that starts from the top. Tim Corbin and what he has put together has really made that program like that.”
Warlick warned that some adversity probably will strike the Commodores.
“It’s about how you handle it, and that’s why team chemistry is so important,” Warlick said. “When you have team chemistry you trust each other. You’re going to make mistakes and you have to be able to depend on people on your team to pick you up. It’s about being able to communicate and a trust factor; you’re all in it for the same reason. You probably have to put some egos aside and some individual things aside and trust that your team is going to have your back.”
The Commodores already have had a small taste of that, with starting pitcher Tyler Beede turning in his shortest outing of the season on Monday. But sophomore Walker Buehler bailed Beede out with 51/3 innings of no-hit relief in a 6-4 win over UC Irvine.
“I was happy I got to pick him up,” Buehler said. “He was great for us all year.”
Vanderbilt athletics director David Williams has attended both College World Series games and said a national title would help improve the Commodores’ athletic image, which has gotten a boost from three consecutive football bowl games.
“We are making steady improvement and this is the goal, but if you win the national championship it’s like you’re at the top of the pile,” Williams said. “We’re in that portion of the year where there’s only one sport left, and that’s baseball. There are only six ADs still working, and by the time we play on Friday it will be down to four. You’d love to be the last one working. You want to be the one to get to turn out the lights.”
Reach Nick Cole at 615-259-8010 and on Twitter @ncole6. Contributing: Mike Organ.
HOW VANDY CAN WIN A NATIONAL TITLE
The Commodores will play Texas at 2 p.m. Friday on ESPNU.
• If they win, they advance to the best-of-three championship series against the winner of the other bracket. Ole Miss, Texas Christian and Virginia are still alive in that bracket.
• If they lose, they will play the same team again on Saturday at 2 p.m. or 7 p.m. The winner of that game will advanced to the championship series.
• First team to win twice wins the national championship. Games are at 7 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, if necessary. All of those games are on ESPN.
VANDERBILT’S ONLY NATIONAL TEAM TITLE
Vanderbilt earned its first national team championship on April 14, 2007 when the women’s bowling team defeated Maryland Eastern Shore 4-3 in the NCAA final in Apopka, Fla.
All-American Josie Earnest earned the tournament MVP award after icing the victory with a pair of strikes in the final frame.
Tara Kane and Karen Grygiel also were All-Americans on that team coached by John Williamson.
Courtesy of: Nick Cole
Published by: The Tennessean